Regular visitors to Just Backdated will perhaps have noted that certain big rock acts are conspicuous by their absence. Among them is Queen, who’ve been staring at me reproachfully for the past two weeks from the front cover of the latest Mojo magazine that sits on the coffee table in our front room. It’s my old pal Mick Rock’s famous picture of their four heads in a diamond configuration, the opening sequence of the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. They don’t look that happy, as they probably weren’t after Mick asked for an outrageous sum of money when they tried to buy the copyright of this shot from him several years ago. I was never a Queen fan. Furthermore, I had a series of encounters with them or their support staff between 1974 and 1986 that did not go well, and the appearance this week on Rock’s Back Pages of an uncomplimentary Melody Maker review of them I wrote in 1975, coupled with that Mojo cover, has prompted me to set down for posterity the details of the ill-fated relationship between Queen and I. Queen emerged in the UK while I was working as Melody Maker’s man in America so I wasn’t around to see them in their infancy. Indeed, my first exposure to them was in New York when they supported – yes, supported – Mott The Hoople at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, for a run of shows in May of 1974. It was an occasion that brought out all of New York’s glammed up boys and girls, loads of fun and glitter everywhere, and Queen dressed for it – their US debut – in garments not unlike those worn by Olympic ice skaters on the rink, all shiny satin with pleats and billowing sleeves. This was how they habitually dressed at that time, very ostentatious, as was their music, which struck me as a premeditated blend of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie with a sprinkling of Yes on the vocal harmonies, efficiently delivered certainly but very calculated and somehow bereft of that magical ingredient that conveys to an audience an act’s sense of spiritual purpose, that they really believe in what they are doing. In contrast, Mott turned in their usual high-spirited if disorderly set and seemed to me to have ten times more integrity about them.
I next saw Queen at the Avery Fisher Hall in NY on 1 March, 1975, and I am indebted to Rock’s Back Pages for republishing on line this week my MM review of that show. Here it is, word for word: “As an ardent supporter of British rock amid a race of people weaned on hamburgers and Coca Cola, it grieves me to report how disappointed I was with Queen’s important ‘prestige’ performance at the Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday evening. I'd read good things about the band and expected much – but I came away with a sour taste. “It was perhaps unfortunate that Queen were the first heavy metal act I witnessed after attending three performances by Led Zeppelin in recent weeks. “Queen's music, to me, was tedious, and their on-stage presence (an essential quality if you choose to run the heavy-rock-with-glitter-overtones race) was an almost laughably bizarre mish-mash of every other more successful band of their genre. “Freddie Mercury came over as a pompous, arrogant duplication of all those who have gone before; his stage movements seemed forced and stereotyped instead of smooth and flowing with the rhythms his band were creating. “Brian May is a competent, but far from spectacular guitar player. His long solo relied entirely on the tape loop of an echo chamber which, I suspected, had the sustain control switched up to the fullest level. “I had no complaint with the rhythm section and the drummer, in fact, came to the rescue with some nifty infills time and time again. His two floor tom-toms appeared to be covered with some kind of white powder, so that every time he pounded away to his right, an interesting effect was created. “Queen’s lighting was excellent, and their one-hour fifteen minute show concluded on the usual smoke filled note. This, in itself, was rather curious: most bands who utilise this over-used ploy use dry ice which, as it is heavier than air, sinks to the ground and rarely rises above the musicians’ knees. Queen appeared to be using steam which has the opposite effect and floats everywhere. On this occasion the clouds of steam completely blocked out the view of the group — and the first few rows of the audience. “Lastly, it is only fair to point out that my view of the concert appeared to be that of the minority and the majority went home satisfied.” Within a week both the New York Times and Rolling Stone published similarly unflattering reviews.
The next time I saw Queen was at the Beacon Theatre on New York’s West Side in February 1976. I was sat in the stalls and when some idiot in the circle lobbed a firecracker over the balcony that missed my head by inches and landed at my feet, I and several others had to hastily vacate our seats midway through their performance. It was one of many fireworks chucked during the show. While I realise it wasn’t Queen’s fault that I narrowly escaped being blinded, it didn’t endear me to them or their fans. It left a nasty taste in my mouth that somehow never went away. For this reason I didn’t review that show beyond a cursory mention in my New York news column that drew attention to the behaviour of their fans. As you can probably guess, by now I had detected what I felt was an element of cynicism surrounding Queen, as if their modus operandi had been plotted in a business meeting where all the required ingredients for success were debated and thereafter skilfully blended through earnest planning and research. It was a view shared by many of my fellow critics in America, and probably in the UK too. Perhaps sensing that Melody Maker’s NY correspondent wasn’t in their camp, the next time they appeared in NY – at Madison Square Garden no less, in February 1977 – they invited a sympathetic London-based MM writer along for their ride, no doubt to ensure positive coverage. I was on the cusp of leaving MM then anyway, and wasn’t even offered tickets to the show. I couldn’t care less.
Thereafter my encounters with Queen did not involve the group’s music or performances and, as such, it’s quite likely the boys in the band were unaware of them. In early 1986 Omnibus Press, of which I was then editor, published a book entitled Queen: A Visual Documentary by Ken Dean (a pseudonym). The book’s cover featured the same photograph that appears on this month’s Mojo and I have no doubt Mick Rock long ago banked his check. No sooner had our book hit the shops than Queen’s lawyers wrote me an indignant letter. They claimed it was a blatant breach of their rights and demanded it be removed from sale, all copies destroyed and all revenues forwarded to them, pronto, plus damages to be negotiated and legal costs, under pain of god knows what. It was, of course, horseshit. Within certain parameters, the law permits anyone to publish a book about anyone else so long as you do not libel them or breach their copyright. The actual book, one in a series of similar books that didn’t trouble anyone else, was a straightforward chronology of their career, just dates, events, quotes and lots of pictures, without comment, and therefore did not libel them. The text was commissioned by me and paid for by Omnibus Press, which therefore owned the copyright, and all the photographs were cleared with the various agencies or individual photographers that owned the rights to them. Any first year law student would have known Queen’s lawyers were bullshitting. So I wrote back to Queen’s lawyers informing them of our position, a letter that left no doubt I knew the law better than they did. At this point someone at their law office must have been assigned to scan the book with a fine tooth comb to check whether we had inadvertently breached their copyright in some small way. A week or two went by before we received a reply, this one stating that on one page (out of 96), in the bottom left hand corner, there was a photograph in which someone was sporting a backstage pass that incorporated Queen’s copyrighted logo, so tiny in fact that it was barely visible to the naked eye. Still, legally, it breached their copyright. Gotcha, or so they thought. Without admitting anything – the first rule in legal disputes – I wrote back and offered them £50 for what anyone in their right minds would consider the most minor of infringements. Realising that if they pursued this miniscule breach through legal channels they would be laughed out of court, they wrote back demanding a 15% royalty, “Our normal royalty rate on merchandise,” they said. I wrote back along the lines of, “Since you have seen fit to decline our generous offer of £50, that offer is now reduced to £25.” We never heard back.
Perhaps I had asked for it by being cheeky but my final experience of Queen, that same year, was also unpleasant. I was at their Knebworth show in August which just happened to be Freddie Mercury’s last performance with the group. I wasn't there to see Queen - heaven forbid - but because Omnibus Press had published a book on the Knebworth Festivals by Chrissie Lytton-Cobbold, the wife of the owner of the estate, and as a result we were granted permission to set up a stall on site to sell rock books, including hers of course, and also one on Big Country, one of the day’s support acts, a book that was approved by them. This did not sit well with Queen’s merchandising company who objected to our stall, pointing out that they had the exclusive right to sell merchandise on the site, which meant everything bar food and drink. The upshot of a rather nasty exchange of views backstage was that we were permitted to sell only Chrissie’s book and had to remove the rest of our stock from display. They offered to sell the Big Country book, as they were already selling that group’s merchandise alongside Queen’s. As the day went on I couldn’t help but notice the massive business Queen’s merchandising stands were doing, raking in heaps of cash hand over fist, mostly for Queen-branded clothing. At the end of the day they returned almost all the Big Country books to us and handed over a tiny sum of money, about £30 as I recall, which represented 15% of their revenues from those they did sell. They retained 85% which was what they retained on Queen merchandise. I didn’t argue. It was me against five big blokes. Would it really have harmed their vast takings if we’d been allowed to sell our books? Of course not. It was greed. That nasty taste that somehow never went away just got nastier.
In one respect we had the last word. After poor old Freddie left us in 1991 an updated edition of our Visual Documentary book went on to sell over 50,000 copies in six months. Then again maybe not. A few years ago Roger Taylor, who struck me as a reasonable sort of bloke when I happened to spend an evening drinking with him and my pal Don Powell, bought Puttenham Priory, not that far from where I now live in Surrey. Grade II listed, it is set in 48 acres and has nine bedrooms, six bathrooms and a garage for eight cars and god only knows what else. Someone told he paid £8 million for it. That’s about 22 times more than I paid for my modest gaff. And I thought was lucky.
In a departure from my usual habit I am posting on my blog today an e-mail I received about Andy Neill’s recent Ready Steady Go! book. The writer is our mutual friend Ed Hanel, a fellow Who archivist and collector with whom I have been friendly since we first met in 1981. At that time Ed and his family lived in north London where he and his wife Lynne worked for the US military. Now retired and living in Hawaii, Ed worked all his life as an attorney for the US Navy which just goes to show that Who fans come from all walks of life.
In March I previewed my friend Andy Neill’s upcoming book about Ready Steady Go!, the UK TV show broadcast between August 1963 and December 1966, that remains the benchmark by which TV rock and pop is judged. This was based on the manuscript, which Andy had asked me to read, but it no way prepared me for the real thing, the actual book, which arrived in the mail yesterday.
Well, it’s “smashing” as Cathy McGowan would have told Mick or Brian as the Stones geared up to play their latest single on the RSG! set, or John and Paul as they larked around and made funny faces to camera, or Pete and Keith as she admired their mod gear. Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here – The Definitive Story Of the Show That Changed Pop TV – to give it its full title – belongs in that category of Rolls Royce rock books reserved for those Mark Lewisohn writes about The Beatles or other labours of love by music writers who’ve spent years on a project, in Andy’s case a mere 17, on and off.
Which is to say that it’s big (about 12.5 inches square) and weighty (6 lbs), with about 70,000 words and hundreds of pictures spread over 268 high-end art paper pages. There are forewords by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Vicki Wickham, the production pair who more than anyone else brought RSG! to your screens, and contributions from Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies and many more. (The only notable absentee among those newly interviewed is McGowan herself, now a grandmother, who “resolutely refuses any attempt to drag her back into her past”.) The price on the cover is £39.99 but Amazon charge £28.67.
Although it’s a chronological account, beginning in pre-RSG! days and closing with a review of what happened next to its staff and presenters, the chapters are cunningly arranged backwards – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and included within them are spreads dealing with appearances by RSG!’s most favoured acts and other aspects of the show like Mod fashion, art and excursions onto the Continent. At the back you’ll find an episode guide with details of who appeared on all 178 programmes, the RSG! spin-off Ready Steady Win and even audience ratings. The text lovingly chronicles its tentative beginnings, its seat-of-the-pants production style, its impeccable musical values and, most of all, its absolute refusal ever to abide by the traditional rules of shows televised before live audiences.
The production style is best summed up by Jagger. “RSG! wasn’t safe,” he says. “It took risks, and waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times.” Watching it, you often got the feeling the producers were cramming as much as they could into their miserly half hour slot, and that’s the same feeling I get from the book. Andy Neill and his designer Phil Smee have crammed as much as they can into it, from the RSG! memorabilia on the front and back end papers to a wealth of previously unseen (or seldom seen) shots from the set inside, Beatles and Stones galore, Dusty waiting for her cue and Cathy interviewing the stars in her customarily effusive style.
It’s in the detail where much of the magic lies. To cite just two examples, in the Episode Guide for show number 122 we are informed that Keith Moon was banned from compering RSG! because of something he ‘unintentionally’ said to Cathy – oh my! – while in the guide to show 89, which featured amongst others The Everly Brothers, we learn from Manfred Mann’s Tom McGuinness that Don and Phil stayed behind after rehearsals, playing their acoustic guitars to no one in particular. “They started singing old country and folk songs, staring into each other’s faces to get those harmonies spot on. They seemed unaware that the studio was slowly filling up with the other artists, cameramen and technicians. When the song ended there was silence from the growing crowd. Eventually, when it was evident they had finished, the place erupted with cheering. Don and Phil looked around as if they’d only just noticed us, and smiled. It was spine tingling to hear them singing just for themselves.”
That’s just two tiny, almost microscopic details in this spectacular book about the show with the unforgettable catchphrase ‘The Weekend Starts Here’. That was the cue for every pop fan in the land to switch on the family TV early Friday evening and shoo their mums and dads out of the room for half an hour while this most exciting and trend-setting of pop shows was broadcast. This book does it justice in spades.
Finally, nice but not quite as impressive, there’s a limited edition box set of 10 7” singles released as a companion to the book, featuring songs by Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, The Walker Brothers, The Supremes, Donovan, Cilla Black and The Searchers. Naturally it kicks off with the Manfred’s ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and the set include a 24-page booklet written by Andy.
Fifty years ago this past weekend on the Isle of Wight a crowd variously estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000 were entertained by a 38-year-old ukulele player from New York called Herbert Khaury. A tall man with long straggly hair and a penchant for loud jackets and kipper ties, his professional name was Tiny Tim and his repertoire consisted largely of show tunes from the early 20th Century, most especially ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips’, his only hit, which he sang in a piercing falsetto voice.